A Different Kind of War
The war renewed debate about poetry in public life. In 1941, the weekly BBC magazine The Listener asked Robert Graves (‘as a war poet’) to explain why the war had produced little great poetry so far. Because, Graves said, it was a different kind of war. The army of 1941 was not the ‘amateur, desperate, happy-go-lucky, ragtime lousy army of 1914-18.’ It was professional, mechanised and — most importantly — just: there was little moral ambiguity about the cause, and the public knew it. Poems about the horrors of the trenches had been written to stir the ‘ignorant and complacent at home’. Those suffering air raids needed no such stirring. The important poems being written in 1941 were, Graves concluded, not – or not necessarily – those concerned with war.
Perspectives on War
Nevertheless, one of the earliest poems in this collection is Edith Sitwell’s ‘Still Falls the Rain’, written in direct response to the Blitz in 1941 and recorded the following year. Louis MacNeice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’, written in 1944, meditates through the voice of an innocent, unborn human on the violent new reality of modern warfare and its ‘lethal automaton[s]’. But most of the poems here reflect the experience of living through this dark decade more obliquely. Perhaps the war was not, in Edwin Muir’s phrase from ‘The Combat’ (1948), ‘meant for human eyes.’
From the USA Robert Frost and Robert Lowell provide a different perspective, their imaginations less constrained by wartime conditions (Frost never saw military service and Lowell was a conscientious objector imprisoned for his refusal to fight). In ‘Directive’ and ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ respectively, they wrote a kind of redemptive poetry that expressed the hope, in Frost’s phrase, ‘to be whole again beyond confusion’. What, though, did poets believe in a world where the old certainties had been shaken? Graves’s ‘The White Goddess’ alludes to his theory of poetry as a profoundly pagan ritual; by contrast, W.S. Graham’s The Nightfishing (1955), written in the late Forties, evokes the sea as a symbol of a world where meanings are as transient as sounds: ‘All my life I hear / My name spoken out / On the break of the surf’.
BBC 100 articles written by Sandy Balfour, David Nowell Smith and Jeremy Noel-Tod.